Los Angeles

Picture Perfect: The Fine Eyes of Location Scouts

Los Angeles postcard circa 1930s

It's the palm trees you have to watch out for. They're postcard-perfect totems for Southern California but that's a problem when you're shooting in L.A. but don't want audiences to know that. As location scout/manager Greg Campeau relates, "I'll find a perfect house that will have three great angles, and then in one, there's this huge palm tree." Of course, this being an industry town, there are ways to deal with it. Special effects can remove them digitally but Campeau reveals there's a cheaper, easier way to go: "put bark around the bottom part so it looks like a [different kind of tree.]" That's right: in L.A., even the bark might be fake.

Tree Bark Roller | Image from betterpaths.com

The city/county of Los Angeles is essentially Hollywood's biggest backlot and that brings with it certain attendant privileges and headaches. Symbolically, it means that L.A. is often asked to represent both itself and other places and as documentarian Thom Anderson exhaustively catalogued in his epic 2003 L.A. Plays Itself, the results are mixed, at best. But for someone like Campeau, his sense of the city is less concerned with historical or geographic accuracy than logistical and artistic merits. His role, as a location specialist, is to pair a director's vision with the most ideal visual asset. Obviously, there's any number of economic and pragmatic reasons to shoot an ad or TV show or film in/around Southern California. The technological infrastructure was created 100 years ago. The specialized labor numbers into the hundreds of thousands. As the current drought can attest to, you rarely need worry about inclement weather ruining a production schedule.

The Southland's built and natural landscapes -- from coastal cities to desert ghost towns, snowy peaks to suburban valleys -- offers myriad "looks," capable of subbing for other places while still retaining an instantly recognizable identity (hello Hollywood sign). Few other cities manage to be both as deeply iconic and conveniently generic. In fact, Campeau, who has worked on "Entourage," "The Mentalist," and a slew of national advertising campaigns, is often called upon to find locations that can pass for "Anywhere USA" (which apparently means "Ohio"). In L.A., "Anywhere USA" might mean, "South Pasadena or Pasadena, parts of Westchester, Long Beach even. Really nice, middle-income home areas," he says. Think 80-100 year old homes, verdant lines, maybe a white picket fence. It's telling that another show that Campeau works on, "Modern Family," seeks to wrap an otherwise conventional family sitcom within a titular "modern" wrapping and while the show doesn't claim to be set in any particular city, many of its locations are in those older L.A. neighborhoods Campeau listed, including where he himself lives, in South Pasadena.

"Pee Wee's house" (located in South Pasadena, CA) | Screencap from "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" (1985)

Campeau first got into the business in the late 1990s and was well-prepped by a childhood spent exploring many corners of the region. He grew up in mid-city but shares, "my dad and mom liked the whole city of L.A., Not just the west side, but I remember going to East L.A., San Pedro, Long Beach, The Valley, Santa Barbara, Oxnard as kids. So we always understood the whole realm of the whole city, not just one part of it." By coincidence, his childhood home wasn't far from the epicenter of the "thirty mile zone" (aka the TMZ) that location managers know by heart. The zone -- whose nucleus is at the intersection of Beverly and La Cienaga -- creates a financial incentive to shoot within its radius and not surprisingly, cost-wary productions strictly adhere to staying inside the TMZ ring.

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There are places outside the TMZ that Campeau wishes he could use more -- "UC Irvine ...it's a very neat campus" -- but even inside the zone, there's a remarkable amount of visual diversity. As Campeau points out, within the TMZ, "parts of downtown and some parts of East L.A. can go for Philly, Pittsburgh, New York. You could play with Florida. Then you can also do Arizona, Phoenix, you know, out in Santa Clarita."

"30 Mile Map" | Image from the California Film Commission

More than most Angelinos, Campeau is attuned into the city's constantly changing (or not) landscape. Small details, like a store facade being rehabbed or someone repainting their house, make important differences; he's had to abandon using specific streets after they've been repaved given that they reflect light differently as a result. Similarly, he notes that even ten years ago, it wasn't unusual for downtown buildings to leave all their lights on a night, creating a striking backdrop for car ads but these days? "Due to energy conservation, all the buildings shut their lights off at a certain time. Being green is cool, but aesthetically, sometimes we want the lights on," he laughs. In contrast, there's other parts of the city where time seemingly has stood still. Campeau noticed in the 2013 film, "Gangster Squad," they used a stretch of road on Figueroa in Highland Park, "a section by 56th. If you really stop and look at it...and put in period cars, it's like wow, this could look like something from a postcard from 1930s Los Angeles," he observes.

55th and Figueroa, Highland Park | Image from Wikipedia Commons

It is, of course, his job of pay attention to the intricate nuances of the city and even when he's out with his family, Campeau's scanning for an evocative street corner, the right bend in a road, a perfectly sloped hill: any place that could provide visual interest for a future shoot: "you always try to file something away that you can use later on." "People are always worried about getting from Point A to Point B," he adds, and in the process, they often miss the beauty of Los Angeles right under their noses, especially in places where you might imagine there is none. Lately, Campeau's been drawn to industrial spaces such as parts the Alameda Corridor that carries freight up from the ports. One of his favorite "finds" has been a shipping container yard towards the southern end of the corridor: "think of a really big Dodger's Stadium full of containers," he describes. "They come off the ship, come here, and they get distributed out, but they can maneuver the containers in any way you want. So they can stack them five high, twenty high, they can change their colors, so you can make whatever." Just make sure to edit out the palm trees.

Alameda Corridor | Image from the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority

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Top Image: Los Angeles postcard circa 1930s.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.
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